The Club was honored to have Ralph de la Vega as its guest speaker on July 1, 2020. Ralph is the past Vice Chairman of AT&T. He relocated from Dallas to Boca Raton following his retirement.
Ralph shared a moving story of how he immigrated from Cuba at the US at age 10. When Castro took power and nationalized all businesses and industry, his family decided to leave Cuba and immigrate to the US. When they got to the airport, the officials said “only the boy can go” only his papers were OK. He could fly to the U.S. by himself or the entire family had to stay behind. Ralph’s father made frantic calls from the airport and found friends in Miami that would take Ralph in for a few days until the family straightened out the paperwork. He got on that airplane by himself and would not see his parents again for four years. He found himself in a new country, with a new family, new language, new customs and without a penny in his pocket.
Another great story was how he ended up so accomplished with his education. Since he came from a poor area in Miami, his counselor in high school told him that instead of becoming an engineer (his dream) he should become a mechanic. He simply couldn’t afford to go to college so he should focus on the trades and enter a certificate program. But, when his grandmother arrived from Cuba who was a school teacher, she told Ralph, “Don’t let anyone put limits in what you can achieve. If you want to become an engineer, you can become an engineer”. Ralph ignored the counselor’s advice and went back to high school.
Ralph then finished his two-year program at Miami Dade College (1972) and transferred to FAU where he majored in Mechanical Engineering (1974) and graduated with honors. He then got his MBA at Northern Illinois University (1989).
Ralph then went to work for Bell South where his first job was an engineer which at the time also required to him inspect public pay phones (remember them?). In his first week on the job when he inspected a public phone the coin collection area opened and coins poured out. He didn’t know what to do so he collected them and put them on his boss’s desk. He later found out that he had uncovered a phone designed to open easily as a test to see what the employee would do with the discovered money. Ralph passed the integrity test and then proceeded through advancement up the ranks of Bell South, Cingular and finally AT&T.
When he was promoted to run all the cellular business in Latin America for BellSouth, the economies were all in a mess. His friends asked him why he accepted a job so full of problems since he had a great reputation. He told them he welcomed the job because through difficulty there was also great opportunity. Obviously, Ralph did a great job.
I asked Ralph to share how AT&T was able to land the iPhone before other operators and on an exclusive basis. He shared that they had been working with Apple and Motorola to develop a music centric device. When it came time to launch the iPhone, Steve Jobs required Ralph and his team to sign very strict NDAs. But, the investment in the Apple relationship paid off handsomely with an exclusive launch of the iPhone in 2007.
In reflection of his successful career, Ralph wrote Obstacles Welcome where he talks about overcoming adversity and learning from them. Thank you, Ralph, for an inspiring talk.
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